As Disney prepares to release "Raya and the Last Dragon" in theaters and as a premium on-demand title this Friday, CEO Bob Chapek says that he thinks the experimentation his studio and others in Hollywood are doing with releasing movies during the pandemic will permanently change the movie business.
"The consumer is probably more impatient than they've ever been before," Chapek said during a Q&A at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, "particularly since now they've had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So, I'm not sure there's going back. But we certainly don't want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run."
Disney previously released its remake of "Mulan," initially a March 2020 theatrical release, as a premium title for $29.99 for Disney+ subscribers while Pixar's "Soul" went from being a theatrical June 2020 release to a Christmas Day release on Disney+ at no extra cost. "Raya and the Last Dragon" will be released on PVOD at the same price as "Mulan," while the "101 Dalmatians" prequel "Cruella" will take the same path as "Soul," going from theatrical to streaming this May.
The big question for Disney is whether it will commit the Marvel Studios blockbuster "Black Widow" for its currently scheduled theatrical release on May 7, or if it will move to a hybrid release similar to "Raya" or be pushed back once again. Studios have already delayed several films previously set for release in March and April, and while theaters in New York City have been given clearance to reopen this Friday, it is unclear how close much of the rest of the country will be to reopening in May as the COVID-19 vaccination process continues.
Meanwhile, more studios are using the pandemic to finally shorten the 90-day theatrical window long defended by movie theaters. Last week, Paramount announced that two of its most anticipated upcoming releases, "Mission: Impossible 7" and "A Quiet Place -- Part II," will be available to stream on its new Paramount+ service 45 days after they hit theaters.
This comes after Universal made a deal with AMC and Cinemark to release its films on home platforms as early as 17 days after theatrical release, with a clause that will guarantee 31 days of theatrical exclusivity if the film earns an opening weekend of more than $50 million domestically. Warner Bros. made an even more drastic measure, announcing that all of its 2021 films would be released on HBO Max the same day as theatrical release, a move that was intensely opposed by AMC and other movie theater chains as well as filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan.
Disney has yet to show an exact number of days it would like to shorten the theatrical window to, but Chapek's remarks suggest that the hybrid release strategy Disney is using for "Raya" may be a model it continues to explore while it waits for the box office to return to normal. Once it does, Disney has a very good reason not to leave movie theaters behind, as the studio grossed a record $11.1 billion worldwide in 2019 off of films like "Avengers: Endgame," "Frozen II," and a CGI remake of "The Lion King."
"This is a fluid situation and it's fluid for two reasons: The short term impact of COVID on the number of screens open and on consumers' willingness to go back, but also the fundamental changes of consumer behavior, which might be more profound," Chapek said. "We are watching very carefully...to see how long term those preferences are going to shift. and that's why we talk about flexibility so often."